Friday, March 04, 2016

Forgotten Books: Powder Smoke - William Colt MacDonald

William Colt MacDonald was a prolific author for the Western pulps and then a very successful novelist in both hardback and paperback, but he’s probably best known as the creator of The Three Mesquiteers, who starred in several of MacDonald’s novels as well as being featured in dozens of B-Western movies, portrayed by a variety of actors. (My favorite trio is John Wayne as Stony Brooke, Ray Corrigan as Tucson Smith, and Max Terhune as Lullaby Joslin, but that’s a different blog post.)

Anyway, while I’ve seen a bunch of the movies based on MacDonald’s work, I’ve never actually read much of it, one novel that I recall and a few pulp stories. I’m starting to regret that I haven’t sampled his stories more extensively, because I recently read POWDER SMOKE, a Leisure paperback reprinting a couple of MacDonald’s pulp novellas, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The first story, “The Son of the Wolf”, was published originally in the December 17, 1927 issue of ACE-HIGH MAGAZINE, which at that stage of its existence was still a general fiction pulp before evolving into an all-Western pulp. The Wolf is ruthless cattle baron and range hog Wolf Blaine, who runs roughshod over all the other ranchers in the area, forcing them out so he can take over their spreads through legal means . . . but if that doesn’t work, Blaine isn’t above goading a man into a gunfight, killing him, and claiming self-defense. He makes so many enemies that one of them decides to strike back by kidnapping Blaine’s infant son and raising him to be an outlaw.

Well, you can probably guess what happens. Twenty years pass, and the kid, now grown into a deadly gunfighter and top all-around cowboy named Duke, comes back with his adoptive father (Blaine’s old enemy) to get revenge on Blaine. Complications ensue. There’s a rodeo, a beautiful girl, a couple of fandangos, and a lot of emotional upheaval. As it turns out, there’s no real villain in this one, although some of the characters are certainly less sympathetic than others. As MacDonald has one of them put it, “There’s some good in the worst of men.”

I read this right after Lewis B. Patten’s PURSUIT, where there’s hardly any good in anybody, and it was really a refreshing change. Yeah, “The Son of the Wolf” is old-fashioned and hokey and even a little melodramatic, but dang, I had fun reading it. MacDonald keeps things moving along at a fast pace, and the ending is a little tragic but mostly heartwarming. I don’t know about you, but my heart needs a little warming now and then.

“Powder Smoke”, the second short novel in this volume, originally appeared in the February 4, 1931 issue of WEST. It’s a more traditional Western yarn, with bad guys trying to take over a ranch by crooked means, including framing a young cowboy for the murder of his own brother. Getting to the bottom of this is rancher Powder Smoke Peters, who seems to have been pretty heavily influenced by W.C. Tuttle’s Hashknife Hartley in name as well as actions. Powder Smoke sets out to solve the mystery, which appears pretty obvious on the surface, but MacDonald manages to throw in a nice twist or two along the way. This blend of mystery, gunplay, and humor is very reminiscent of Tuttle and is also highly entertaining.

I really enjoyed both novellas in this collection. They’re very traditional and old-fashioned, but then again, so am I at times, and they’re executed with a high degree of skill. If you’re a fan of pulp Western yarns, I give POWDER SMOKE a high recommendation. It's still available in Kindle and large print editions, and used copies of the Leisure paperback are inexpensive and plentiful.


Walker Martin said...

WEST magazine may have been the best of the western pulps during the Doubleday period of the late 1920's and early 1930's. But I see one of the old time collectors has made a futile attempt at repairing the issue. I guess scotch tape was not available back then and readers used masking tape which always looks terrible and lowers the value of the magazine.

Barry Ergang said...

I've read three of Macdonald's Three Mesquiteers novels and can recommend all of them: The Sunrise Guns, Ghost Town Gold, and The Singing Scorpion. I've reviewed two of them:

Scott Parker said...

Yes! I first got introduced to MacDonald when I inherited my grandfather's box of non-L'amour westerns. MacDonald was prominent in the collection as was Luke Short, Giles Lutz, and other Gold Medal authors.

MacDonald wrote another series character, Gregory Quist, a railroad detective. He was the spark that made me ask if I could create a railroad detective. Calvin Carter was the result.

James Reasoner said...

I have at least one of the Gregory Quist books but have never read any of them that I recall. I need to do that. I enjoy railroad detective books.

RJR said...

Yes, I know him best for the Quist books.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've seen some of those movies too but not read the books.